Before Don Draper made Old-Fashioneds fashionable again, bar tenders and drinkers alike have been enjoying the complex flavors that enhance the pleasure of drinking a classic cocktail.
These drinks have come back full speed because of their seductive appearances and literally intoxicating flavors, with the help of a special ingredient.
“Bitters have everything to do with cocktails, including a story that involves the origin of the name,” said Alex Diimig, General Manager of Jakes Cigars & Spirits. “While there are many thoughts as to where it first cropped up, perhaps my favorite is that it came from Antoine Peychaud of New Orleans. He served a stomach ache remedy using his bitter concoction in a coquette glass or egg cup. The serving style caught on and as many frustrated bartenders have recognized not everyone could pronounce the word, so it became cocktail. You might recognize Peychaud as the bitters used to make New Orleans's signature cocktail, and one of my favorites, the Sazerac.”
Bitters have been a part of American history for nearly as long as our country itself. The first time the word “cocktail” was mentioned in public record was in an 1803 issue of Farmers Cabinet, an agricultural publication in Philadelphia. In 1806, the first recipe for a cocktail called for “a stimulating liquor, composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water, and bitters.”
Initially created as a way to ward off illnesses and treat stomach ailments, bitters were used on their own before being married with alcohol. One of the most popular brands of bitters, Angostura, was created in 1824 by a German doctor who was sure he was on the path to cure diseases. He may not have cured cancer, but he has provided a remedy for the lonely nights of many.
After Prohibition in the early 1900s, bitters were outlawed along with all other alcohol, only seeing the light of darkness in seedy bars and underground speakeasies. Most brands, aside from Angostura and Peychauds, were unable to remain in business. Occasionally, doctors could write prescriptions for liquor for “medicinal purposes,” but for the most part, these drinks vanished in America for many years. However, the ever resourceful speakeasy bartenders utilized existing resources and began making their own bitters to mask the available low quality alcohol.
Now bitters are stocked in plenty everywhere from pubs to fine dining establishments. Made from an infusion of herbs, bark, flowers and aromatics, bitter flavors range from chocolate to cardamom. These unique flavors are helping keep some of the classic cocktails alive today. “Years ago if someone ordered an Old Fashioned, they were in their 80s,” said Jeff Lohmeier, bartender at Havana Garage. “Now younger drinkers who used to drink Bud Light are ordering these drinks. People want quality cocktails to enjoy. I think the cocktail culture in Omaha is evolving, and these changes are here to stay.”
Bitters are not only to be used in whisky drinks like Manhattans. Back in the day, bitters were commonly used in martinis. “For a long time, we assumed a dirty martini was always made with vodka,” said Devin Coyle, Whisk(e)y Consultant at Spirit World. “But there is research that shows that vodka in martinis became popular in the 1950’s due to gin being more evident on the breath. Vodka with savory spices in a drink are much less easier to recognize after lunch.” Coyle believes everyone should try a martini the way it should be: with bitters. “The original martini recipe calls for a good London dry gin, a good dry vermouth, and a dash and a half of orange bitters. Stir, don’t shake, and finish it with a healthy lemon peel.”
Some craft cocktail lovers in Omaha have followed in the footsteps of speakeasy bartenders and are making their own bitters and infusions. "For the last three months, I have been barrel aging Angostura bitters in a to scale 1 L bourbon barrel,” said Coyle. “Sampling the cask every couple weeks allows me to document the evolution going on inside. Amazingly, once tamed by the barrel, my Angostura has almost become too drinkable, almost cordial like.”
However you prefer your drink, it is easy to add incredible depth with the addition of bitters. “Once the mention of this ingredient caused people to shudder and ask, "You mean that stuff you use to cure the hiccups?" Now people ask which company and what type of spices were used to produce it,” said Diimig. “At Jake's we have over 20 bitters from Fee Brothers, Boker's, Bittermens, and Bitter Truth as well as the old standards Regan's and Angostura. With flavors ranging from hibiscus and cinnamon to west indies orange, our bartenders love to incorporate them into drinks for those who are adventurous enough to say ‘I want more out of my drink.’”
For more information on bitters, bartending and fine cocktails, visit http://smallscreennetwork.com. For local businesses mentioned in this story:
Jakes Cigars & Spirits